KOZYN – Under the pine trees of Dnipro, a former Young Pioneer camp here, young Ukrainians shared a dream that would have been taboo for their Soviet predecessors: the desire to fluently speak English.
In modern Ukraine, the universal desire for English proficiency is as clear as the English language schools that dot every street block in Kyiv, 30 km north of here.
But few Ukrainians go to the lengths that these English students have gone to reach the GoCamp East summer English camp. They traveled 12 hours from government-controlled towns in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the ‘gray zone’ bordering Ukraine’s frozen front lines with Russia-backed separatists.
“If you know English, you can get a better job,” said Maria Tarasova, a 15-year-old student from Soledar, in Donetsk region. “I want to go to all the countries in Europe.”
“Neither of my parents speak English – but they support us,” she said in a comment seemed to capture the outlook of her town’s Soviet-educated generation.
Maria and her classmate, Elizabeta Tupikova, had an unusual first exposure to foreign English-speakers. Three summers ago, in August, 2014, their town was a temporary headquarters for international observers gathered after the crash of Malaysia Airlines 17. Flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, the jet was shot down by a missile fired from a separatist town. It crashed in a field 60 southeast of Soledar, killing all 298 on board.
Such a traumatic exposure to the outside world is rare. But the girls’ desire to master English is common across Ukraine.
Irina Kurasova, a teacher at the girls’ high school, No. 13, said that all 750 students at the school study English. Kurasova, a French teacher, said 150 students also study French and 150 students also study German. Ukraine’s last census, in 2001, found that 40 percent of Soledar’s population, speaks Russian at home. But, in keeping with national policy, all instruction is in Ukrainian. Russian language teaching limited to one hour a week at school.
“We want him to get a profession connected with English,” she said, referring to her 15-year-old son Maxim, who stood nearby, fingering his guitar.
For a city of 10,000 inhabitants, Soledar has its attractions. Meaning ‘Gift of Salt,” Soledar has 200 km of underground salt mines. Once a destination for day trippers from Donetsk, the mines have wall carvings, an underground church, and a vaulted cavern where football games have been played. Before the war, the Donestk Symphony Orchestra traveled performed concerts in the salt mine.
But the war has cut off all access to Donetsk, a city of 1 million people that once was only a one hour drive away. Fighting destroyed Donetsk International Airport, which once had flights to Germany and Dubai.
For teenagers gathered at the language camp in August, English seems to be a ticket out of small cities that now are at the end of the line. Over the last three years, the war has prompted 2.8 million people to leave Donetsk and Luhansk – one third to Russia and two thirds to safer areas of government controlled Ukraine.
As Ukrainians turn their backs on Russia, the lure of the West burns bright. On June 11, Ukrainians won the right to travel visa free for 90 days to the entire EU, with the exception of Britain and Ireland. Europe’s magnet now reaches into eastern Ukraine, regions with large Russian-speaking minorities.
“I really want to go Germany, there are a lot of prospects there,” Elizabeta Tupikova said, using a Russian word that is often synonymous with jobs. “My parents support me. They know I will come home.”
Almost overnight, Ukrainians have become the migrants of choice for Central Europe. Poland has 1.4 million Ukrainian workers and is changing laws to encourage more to come. The Czech Republic, with an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent, is recruiting technical workers. Hungary and Estonia have launched Ukrainian language campaigns.
For some, German or Polish are keys. A generation ago, Ukrainians could get by in Eastern Europe and the Baltics with Russian. But, today, young Ukrainians see English as the new international language of there European Union neighbors -- and of the wider world.
“I want to be a computer programmer,” said Ruslan Stukan, a 15-year-old, from Bilozerske, a city 115 km from Donetsk. “English is a general language.”
Nick Bolger, a 23-year-old Briton, has a foot in both worlds. He grew up in Luhansk. But at age 11, his mother remarried and they moved to Brighton Beach. Today, in his first trip back to Ukraine since 2008, he is one of about 80 foreign volunteer summer teachers at this program, which is sponsored by the British Council and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
“I see myself as one of them, but lucky enough to move to the UK,” Bolger said of the teenage boys here. “I hope to show them that there is hope beyond what is happening in Eastern Ukraine. By learning English, there are opportunities, working abroad perhaps.”
Seated in the midafternoon quiet of the camp cafeteria, little changed from its Young Pioneer days, he reflected on what changed in Ukraine during his decade away.
“There are more signs in English in Kyiv,” he said. “Ukraine has come to understand that English is an essential language.”
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